On Politics
5:53 pm
Thu March 14, 2013

The Block Report: Much Ado about Not Much

So far, the Ken Block report on waste and fraud in food stamp and Medicaid programs has been a lot of talk about not much. RIPR analyst Scott MacKay explains.

Nothing angers taxpayers more than media stories about n’er do wells ripping off government programs. So it was obvious that the report of fraud in food stamp and Medicaid programs had the headline writers working overtime and the talk radio shouters serving the latest sirloin of red meat to their sycophants.

What started as an attempt by Ken Block, the computer wizard who founded the Moderate Party and ran for governor, to help the state root out $100 million to $250 million in fraud in taxpayer-financed social programs for the poor has landed with a thud.

This one is more State House tempest in a teapot than the Rhode Island version of  Teapot Dome.

Block is a fellow whose brainy wonkery is matched by his flair for self-promotion. After he was badly beaten in a 2010 governor’s race where he received less than 7 percent of the vote, he offered his services to the new governor Lincoln Chafee, for free.

Chafee, with his Team of Rivals philosophy, gave Block the green light to pursue fraud, but also made Block sign a confidentiality agreement, one of the more astute moves the governor has made in this episode.

The florid controversy over this report started with Chafee munching on his toes during an interview with Channel 10 reporters Jim Taricani and Bill Rappleye, who badgered him over his refusal to make the report public. Chafee should have said that he would release it after state and federal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors vetted it for possible criminal action. Then he should have moved to the next topic. Instead, the governor fumbled and turned his fire on the reporters calling them ``media hecklers.’’

The governor has been in government and politics for 30 years and if he doesn’t understand that the occasional media heckle is part of his job description, he will probably never learn.

Then he waited three days to make it public, turning what should have been a one-day story into a weeklong frittata. When Chafee gave it to the media, it was clear that there wasn’t much there.

First, most of the juicy stuff concerned the food stamp program, which serves 180,000 Rhode Islanders, many of whom have low-paying jobs and need the stamps to feed their families. The report flagged some prison inmates collecting food stamps. As if this is representative of the average food stamp recipient. And if a parent commits a crime and lands at the ACI, do we really want to starve his family?

But the biggest farce was Block’s focus on the food stamp program under the guise of saving state taxpayer money. Three-hundred fifty million dollars in federal money supports this program in Rhode Island. There is no state money involved; not a dime. Where there is a huge chunk of state money is in Medicaid, a joint state and federal program which provides health care to the impoverished.

There is about $1 billion in state funds dedicated to Medicaid. Most of this money goes to health care providers, including hospitals, doctors and nursing homes. Why didn’t report didn’t focus more on these programs than food stamps?  Is it because the voiceless poor on food stamps lack the lawyers and lobbyists who protect doctors and health care providers? Or were the food stamp recipients simply the low-hanging fruit? Or is Block lining up the yahoo vote for a governorship campaign in 2014?

When questioned about this, both Block and Chafee said that this report is merely the first step in a longer effort to weed out fraud. In retrospect, maybe Chafee should have told Block to follow the state money and go after the Medicaid programs first and worry about food stamps in the second phase.

Liberals and conservatives had predictable responses. The right-leaning Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity estimated that $200 million in social service spending in the state is wasted on state human service programs. The group also hammered Chafee for redacting parts of the report.

State Rep. Maria Cimini, a Providence Democrat, scored Block. saying the report and the headlines it generated reinforces the ``very unfair stereotype’’  that people who need food stamps are scamming the system.

Conservatives need to stop scapegoating the poor and implying that these programs consume the bulk of state and federal tax outlays. Liberals need to understand that these safety nets for the poor rely on assuring the taxpayers who finance them that these programs are being administered with integrity and that the cheaters are being punished.

Chafee has followed a prudent course on this topic, turning the Block report over to state and federal law enforcement and the top state administrators of the programs. The governor also has a legislative package to address program fraud and has beefed up the enforcement unit.

But maybe next time, the governor will be a bit more careful in his dealings with Block, a guy who wants Chafee’s job. Block worked on his report pro bono. But as Chafee surely knows, sometimes things are free because that’s what they are worth.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at RIPR.org

Related Program